Last reviewed: June 2018
September 2, 1840
Catania, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (now in Sicily, Italy)
January 27, 1922
Catania, Sicily, Italy
Widely considered the greatest Italian novelist after Alessandro Manzoni, Giovanni Verga was born in Catania, Sicily, in 1840, of a family supposed to have come from Aragon in the thirteenth century. The Vergas were a family of patriots. The grandfather was an underground fighter for independence and a deputy to the first Sicilian parliament in 1812. During Giovanni’s boyhood, his mother encouraged him to read. Although he gave her credit for his decision at the age of fifteen to become a novelist, biographers point out that his teacher Pietro Abato wrote poems and novels and assigned classwork that caused the young student to write a six-hundred-page novel about George Washington and the American Revolution. Fortunately, Verga knew more about the subjects of his later fiction. Giovanni Verga
Instead of entering the university in 1860, he persuaded his father to let him use the money to publish another manuscript he had completed in four volumes—I carbonari della montagna, concerning the adventures of his grandfather. During the next fifteen years Verga lived in Florence and Milan. In these cities, under the influence of the French writers, he wrote passable novels of middle-class life, among them the sentimental Sparrow: The Story of a Songbird. In Milan he described adultery in high society in Eva and Tigre reale.
From this distance Verga could look back on his childhood home and draw upon his impressions of Sicilian life. He scorned being classified. When some found in him the masked pity and underlying pessimism of a Thomas Hardy and others called him a supporter of Verism, with its anti-Romanticist reaction, he retorted that “works of art may be born of any-ism. The main thing is for it to be born.”
The years from 1878 to 1880, after he returned to Milan following the death of his favorite sister in Sicily, marked the turning point in his career. His renewed interest in the Sicilian peasants and fishermen as subjects of art was shown in the collection of short stories that contained “Cavalleria Rusticana,” a tale of primitive passion and violence that he was to dramatize in 1884 and then use as the libretto for an opera. His greatest fame came from The House by the Medlar Tree, a novel dealing with Sicilian fishermen defeated in their struggle for existence, with their town as the real protagonist. Verga’s hometown, under the disguise of Trezza, also figured in his last great novel, Mastro-don Gesualdo, which tells of the downfall of a proud, ambitious peasant.
The foreword to The House by the Medlar Tree had announced Verga’s intent to write a Sicilian comedie humaine that would show “the slow, inevitable flow of the rivers of social life.” Writing was hard for him, though, and during the last twenty years of his life spent in his native town in southern Sicily he wrote and published little. He died at Catania on January 27, 1922.
The style of Verga’s writing, mentioned by all critics, grew from his admiration for a moving story by a sea captain that he read when young and which appealed to him in spite of its colloquial and illiterate style. Although an aristocrat, Verga tried to make his own writing echo the speech of simple peasants. For most readers the wealth of detail and the keen observation of the life and customs of the lower class give his novels of southern Italy their greatest appeal. D. H. Lawrence was moved to translate Mastro-don Gesualdo and two volumes of short stories in order to give pleasure to readers ignorant of Italian.